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Media Backtalk

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2005; 12:00 PM

Consumers used to get their news from newspapers, magazines and evening broadcasts from the three television networks. Now, with the Internet, cable TV and 24-hour news networks, the news cycle is faster and more constant, with every minute carrying a new deadline. But clearly more news and more news outlets are not necessarily better. And just because the media have the ability to cover a story doesn't always mean they should -- or that they'll do it well.

Howard Kurtz has been The Washington Post's media reporter since 1990. He is also the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and the author of "Media Circus," "Hot Air," "Spin Cycle" and "The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media and Manipulation." Kurtz talks about the press and the stories of the day in "Media Backtalk."

Howard Kurtz (washingtonpost.com)

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Arlington, Va.: Both Daniel Okrent's column in the Times yesterday and Terry Neal's column today point out that reporters are allowing Republicans free use of the word "reform" to advance their agenda. Even Meet the Press refers to Social Security "reform", and everybody uses the phrase "tort reform" even though they have no idea what it means. Is there any way editors can break the habit and enforce some kind of "no political jargon" rule?

Howard Kurtz: I'm not in favor of edicts, but reform is very much in the eye of the beholder and should generally be avoided, except in quotes.

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Youngstown, Ohio: We have seen some TV reports showing that Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush are developing a friendship as they work together on a number of human causes. Is that really happening -- or, hype?

Howard Kurtz: Who knows? This all grows out of a New York Times story that said they were becoming good pals, a story fed by anecdotes from friends and associates. It's obvious from watching them at public appearances that they're getting along far better than the bitterness that surrounded the '92 election would have suggested. And they are, after all, two of the four surviving members of the ex-presidents club.

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Victoria, B.C., Canada: Does The Washington Post, or you personally, have a person assigned to read some of the MSB (Main Stream Blogs -- I hope I've coined a phrase) to learn what they are gleaning from current events? If not, why not? Or do you even agree that there are some excellent minds at work and talented writing at places like Power Line, Instapundit, PoliPundit, Little Green Footballs, Captain's Quarters, etc.?

Howard Kurtz: If you read my online column, you'll see that I do this every single day, and have cited Powerline and Captain's Quarters, to name just two, in news stories.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: How can it be possible that Bush isn't controlling the Social Security debate when he has the loudest megaphone in politics? The Democrats have a very small microphone yet they seem to be framing the debate better. How is that possible?

Howard Kurtz: The president has a huge megaphone, but when it comes to domestic affairs, Congress has a pretty big one as well. And it's clear from public statements, town meetings and polls that Bush hasn't sold his own party on his Social Security plan and folks are already casting about for alternatives.

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Oklahoma City, Okla.: In your Friday online column you wondered why Sen. Robert Byrd was pretty much beng given a media pass for his "Republicans are Hitler" diatribe. To lots of us, the reason is obvious: the historic leftward tilt of an overwhelming majority of the nationa press corps that results in different standards of accountability for Republicans/conservatives and Demcorats/liberals. Examples: Republican Congressman Bill Janklow kills someone in a traffic accident and must resign; Ted Kennedy leaves a woman to drown in a canal and remains in the Senate, where he is the subject of endless softball profiles as the liberal lion; Trent Lott makes some admittedly foolish statements at a Strom Thurmond party and must give up his leadership post; the selfsame Byrd is never questioned about his longtime KKK membership; Nicon suborns perjury and is driven from office in disgrace; Clinton commits perjury and we are advised to "move on" because, after all, it's only about sex; Gannon/Guckert or whoever must vacate the White House press room for asking softball questions; Helen Thomas continues to reign there after decades of blatantly ideological lefist rantings. It goes on and on . . . one standard for lib-Dems, a much higher, and often different one, for Republicans and conservatives. There's the answer to your ponderings about Byrd.

Howard Kurtz: Well, I certainly tried to hint that that was a possibility. But in your litany, you seem to be laboring under the impression that the media control everything. To take one example, the media didn't force Trent Lott to step down; it was a shove from Bush and a lack of support in his own party. In fact, as I reported at the time, most reporters who heard Lott praise Strom's 1948 segregationist candidacy yawned and didn't consider it news; it was only after agitation by bloggers that it became a big story. And to take another example, MoveOn may have called for the nation to move on during Clinton's crisis, but the media broke the story, swarmed over it for more than a year, and many newspaper editorial pages called for Clinton to resign.

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Astoria, N.Y.: Mr. Kurtz (or, Howard, if I may), I enjoy reading your column and watching you on television (Reliable Sources on CNN), however, I must take issue with your analysis of the Bush administration and the press. Even if Clinton acted in a similar nature, the consequences were far less severe. This is wartime and having an open and honest administration is critical. Also, there is evidence to contradict your conclusion. As your colleague (Froomkin) notes, the Bush administration often creates a bubble and avoids any form of dissent. In contrast, Clinton often enjoyed a more open and free dialogue. Did Gore ever refuse to turn over documents as Cheney has? Doesn't Bush hold some sort of record for fewest press conferences in modern times? Did Gore ban New York Times reporters from his plane? I think you get my point. Many thanks.

Howard Kurtz: I'll have more to say on this tomorrow. But I don't dispute--in fact, I've extensively reported on--the Bush White House's hostilty toward the MSM, including the record low number of press conferences. My argument is that whatever the Bush administration has done to the press, the self-inflicted wounds of the news business have taken a far heavier toll.

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Bella Vista, Ariz.: Why isn't the MSM writing about the Guckert/Gannon story? Smaller newspapers around the country are, but the MSM is staying away. This is an important story after 9/11 as to the president's safe being.

Howard Kurtz: I've written five stories about Gannon/Guckert. The New York Times belatedly weighed in with a couple, and the LAT, which was really late, finally published one. I guess part of it is by resigning so quickly, Gannon took some of the drama out of the story, and I frankly think some news organizations are squeamish when it comes to reporting on a guy who was involved in gay-escort Web sites.

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Fort Worth, Tex.: I read in the morning papers that three Senators have advanced alternate approaches to the Social Security issue. All three are Republicans. Why don't we hear programs spelled out by some Democratic Senators? Where is Senator Kennedy or Senator Clinton? Is the media letting the Democrats off lightly for not offering solutions of their own?

Howard Kurtz: Maybe. The Democrats have adopted a strategy, not unlike the Republicans' response to the Clinton health care plan in '93 and '94, of not proposing anything until the president submits a detailed plan. All the action, therefore, is in the Republican Party, where many lawmakers are worried about the political fallout from the Bush proposal and are casting about for a more politically palatable alternative (such as borrowing money for "add-on" private accounts, which would preserve the existing system but blow an even bigger hole in the deficit).

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Falls Chuch, Va.: What's up with the sore-loser Democrats these days? One senior Democrat Senator compares the Republicans to Hitler, and another top Senator calls Greenspan a "political hack." From a media standpoint, is this an attempt by the minority party to gain unwarranted attention by ratcheting up the intensity of their language? What is the fallout so far?

Howard Kurtz: There's no constitutional bar to ratcheting up language in an effort to get attention; the Republicans were very good at it when they were in the minority. Byrd's Hitler comparison was beyond the pale (and I still can't believe the media pass he's gotten on it), but Harry Reid's description of Greenspan seems to fall under the rubric of fair comment. It's been controversial, obviously, but why shouldn't a Democratic senator be able to criticize a Fed chairman who sided with Bush's big tax cuts in '01 and now sides more or less with his Social Security plan in '05, despite the huge deficits worsened by the aforementioned tax cuts? There is a school of thought that Fed chairmen should stick to fiscal policy and not meddle in domestic issues.

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Ashland, Mo.: How does the media determine that a member of Congress is a leading Democrat or Republican? For example, the Associated Press labels Sen. Hagel as a leading Republican. Why? He is from a smaller state, holds no leadership position, and probably is outside the mainstream of Republican thought.

Howard Kurtz: I think it's absurd to say that Chuck Hagel is outside anyone's mainstream. But he does get a lot of attention because he's a) a maverick when it comes to his own party; b) a frequent Sunday show guest, and c) exploring a 2008 presidential run.

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Centreville, Va.: So why is there hardly any coverage of the Italian journalist who was fired upon by the U.S. in Iraq? The official Administration line is ludicrous. We find out there was no check point, the car was not speeding and there was a plane ready to go to Italy that somehow the Americans didn't know about? Come on -- there is a certain point where even you have to question the administration's ridiculous assertions.

Howard Kurtz: No coverage? It was on the front page of both the Washington Post and New York Times yesterday and today, and has been all over television. The fact that there are conflicting accounts of what happened doesn't necessarily mean the U.S. version is wrong, but Giuliana Sgrena's account does raise some awfully serious questions. I also wonder why the Italians didn't notify the U.S. that she was on her way.

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Victoria, B.C., Canada: Why are so many MSM papers now beginning to acknowledge that Bush may have been been right all along about his pushing of Democracy for the Middle East? Bush has not changed; why have they?

Howard Kurtz: I've read this more in magazines than in newspapers, but the answer is obvious: The "facts on the ground," as the military would say, have changed. Since the Iraq war, which was opposed by many liberals and many media commentators, you've had the Palestinian elections (thanks to Arafat's death); the peaceful uprising in Lebanon; local elections in Saudi Arabia; Egypt's president saying he'll submit to a real election; and Iraqi elections that went better than most of the world expected (although I notice that they haven't gotten around to choosing a government yet). Now maybe those developments have something to do with the U.S. occupation and maybe they don't, but it would be intellectually dishonest for news organizations not to reexamine the question.

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Arlington, Va.: I applaud The Post for having an ombudsman and publishing a number of letters from readers who disagree with the paper. Why don't more papers follow your example -- and why do none of the major networks ever present corrections? The only example I can recall seeing on TV was the CBS memo-gate apology, and Dan Rather is still insisting it was a good story.

Howard Kurtz: The networks do occasionally correct or clarify stories that are wrong. But the reason that only 30 to 40 newspapers have ombudsmen -- and a couple of major papers have dropped them lately -- is that management is not dying to give a forum to an internal critic who will take on editors and reporters. The New York Times, interestingly enough, waited 150 years to hire one, in the wake of the Jayson Blair debacle. What the non-omb papers don't seem to understand is that it actually ADDS to your credibility when readers see that you're willing to subject your product to the same scrutiny that your staff tries to inflict on everyone else.

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Austin, Tex.: I'm sorry, but I have to take issue with your answer to Centreville about the Italian hostage. Yes, it's being covered, but not to the degree that it is in the European media. And the suggestion that she may have been targeted intentionally isn't playing very prominently.

I certainly agree that there's plenty of room for doubt about what happened, and the journalist in question pretty clearly isn't a neutral observer. But still, even if (as I suspect) it was an accident, the very fact that the allegation can be made and, apparently, widely believed among the European public and others is all by itself a big, troubling story. Says a whole lot about how the U.S. is regarded in the world today.

Howard Kurtz: Intentionally targeted? When someone has a shred of evidence that U.S. troops deliberately fired on an Italian woman who was just released by her terrorist captors--boy, what a public relations coup that would be--I'll be happy to look at it. I don't know how it's playing in Europe, but it is a big story here, even if it's not being reported the way you would prefer.

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Iowa: Local Clear Channel radio stations are already running "Condi for President" ads. Since her loyalty to the president is unquestioned, but her substantive political views are mostly unknown, any chance the moderate wing (alcove?) of the Republican party might move to claim her?

Howard Kurtz: I think the larger question is whether a women who has never run for any office is willing to submit herself to the inquisitions and indignities of a presidential campaign.

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Silver Spring, Md.:
I appreciate your media analysis, and thank you for all of your efforts, but I have to make a small accusation. In an earlier response, you mentioned the president's "plan" for Social Security reform. I think that the media has given the president way too much credit for presenting a "plan" that doesn't exist. He has steadfastly refused to present the details of a plan, so I think that it is incorrect to refer to "his plan". We get our little snippets of detail from Robert Novak columns and other sources, but all we know about what the president is proposing is that we all get a free lunch. The cowardice of the president's approach is unthinkable, and should be pointed out, at least, by refusing to acknowledge his discussion as a "plan."

Howard Kurtz: Well, you pick the right word. Proposal, idea, concept, talking point. I said in the same answer that he hasn't supplied the details. But even if you think Bush's, uh, idea for Social Security is absolutely terrible, I don't think it's fair to accuse him of cowardice. It took some political courage to tackle an issue that won't really explode for decades (despite his "crisis" language) and that previous administrations and Congresses have ignored. His ideas may be misguided and he may lose this fight, but the easier path would have been to do nothing.

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Washington, D.C.: I work in PR and know first hand how op-ed contributors and even salaried columnists get paid to support corporate causes. The Bush Administration isn't alone in placing VNRs on TV and paying columnists to opine in their favor. We all know Heritage, Cato, et al. don't write op-eds unless someone pays them to. One, are there/should there be ethical and legal distinctions between government-funded propaganda and corporate-funded propaganda? Is government funded propaganda worse and does it warrant mroe rigid standards? Two, why won't the media adopt stricter disclosure standards in the same way that equity analysts were forced to do after the dot.com bust?

Howard Kurtz: First of all, people at Heritage and Cato do submit op-eds without being paid by outside groups. But I agree the lack of disclosure is sometimes a problem. I've written about several incidents where some lobbying group quietly paid for a former senator or some other luminary to submit an opinion piece to a major newspaper. In every case, the editor involved has told me that he or she did not know of the involvement of the corporation or lobbying group and planned to be more aggressive in asking contributors to make full disclosure.

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Burke, Va.: Has anyone told Susan Estrich that if she doesn't want her correspondence with Michael Kinsley to become public, it's probably not a great idea to cc Matt Drudge on her e-mails?

Howard Kurtz: I don't think Drudge was cc'd on her earlier correspondence, but as her fight with LAT opinion editor Michael Kinsley began heating up, Estrich sent copies to lots and lots of people. So it's hardly surprising that this leaked out. It's a pretty thick file; I only provided the highlights this morning.

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Danville, Pa.: In reaction to today's column: As a woman, I am all for seeing more female voices on op-ed pages. But frankly, Susan Estrich sounds like she has a screw loose. I think there are better ways to make a point.

Howard Kurtz: Estrich's argument is that if women don't rise up and demand change, nothing will happen and op-ed pages will remain male-dominated bastions. I'll leave it up to readers whether she went too far and was too personal in her e-mail attacks on Mike Kinsley. I wonder if she would have scored more points by accepting Kinsley's invitation to wait a couple of weeks and then submit a column on the subject (he's been running a series of pieces by outsiders critiquing the LAT's coverage). She wouldn't have been giving up the nuclear option by doing so.

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Washington, D. C.: What is your opinion about Michael Getler's Ombudsman column yesterday identifying readers' concerns that the Post and others show timidity towards and unwillingness to challenge and investigate the Bush administration's actions? Is there any such issue you think the Post has been too reluctant to pursue? And do you have any comment about Mr. Getler's removal (the announcement did not say he was retiring) especially since at least one of his recent columns was critical of Post editors for not frontpaging news potentially critical of Bush actions leading up to 9-ll?

Howard Kurtz: As I've written, The Post, along with most other news organizations, should have been more aggressive in challenging the administration's claims about WMD and terrorism during the runup to war in Iraq. But I also want to make clear that Mike Getler was not "removed" in any way, shape or form. Every omb is given a two- or three-year contract by The Post, with the possibility of a one-year renewal, after which they're outta here. The idea is that the temporary nature of the job will give the ombudsman more freedom to criticize without having to worry about holding onto his or her job. Getler had already gotten an extension and had announced his planned departure months before the latest column.

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Washington, D.C.: You said "I also wonder why the Italians didn't notify the U.S. that she was on her way." Excuse me Mr. Kurtz, but you know this to be true? Why? The administration told you? They also told you Iraq had WMDs, that the Medicare drug bill was cost manageable, and that tax cuts for the rich are a good thing.

Howard Kurtz: Today's Washington Times: "Italian agents likely withheld information from U.S. counterparts about a cash-for-freedom deal with gunmen holding an Italian hostage for fear that Americans might block the trade, Italian news reports said yesterday."

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Bethesda, Md.: And how can Susan Estrich think that she is helping her own cause? I wouldn't hire her at this point, that's for sure. She is coming off as extremely unprofessional.

Howard Kurtz: Well, she's a passionate woman, that's for sure. And she's done pretty well in the commentary business since managing Michael Dukakis's less-than-inspiring 1988 campaign. But she has sure ratcheted up the rhetoric in this case.

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Washington, D.C.: Wouldn't critics say that the Sgrena incident was just another in a series of shootings where troops fired upon and sometimes killed journalists? Why is it that the pattern can be recognized, but to observe the potential for motive only costs journalists their jobs, as was recently the case with the CNN executive?

Howard Kurtz: It's absolutely fair to question whether U.S. troops have been reckless in incidents involving the shooting of journalists, which include opening fire on the Palestine Hotel (a known headquarters for reporters) and the fatal shooting of a journalist outside Abu Ghraib who was armed only with a camera. It's a huge leap, though, to move from that argument to suggestions that journalists are being deliberately targeted for death.

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New York, N.Y.: No where in Byrd's remarks does he say "Republicans are Hitler," so your previous commentator is wrong (and he shouldn't have used quotes). As usual, the right tries to boil everything done to a simplistic and incorrect argument. There is a difference between making a comparison of subtle procedural issues and the deaths of millions of innocents. Sen. Byrd was discussing procedural issues/comparisons and was NOT comparing Republican actions to the murderous actions of the Nazis.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, but the problem in invoking Hitler, even subtly and even in describing a process you view as totalitarian, is that it's such an emotionally loaded comparison that it is all too easy to misconstrue, as an experienced orator should know.
Thanks for the chat, folks.

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